In the last few years, I have been gathering information on early-modern ideas and folklore around so-called “corpse roads”, which date from before such things as metalled transport networks and the Enclosures. When access to consecrated burial grounds was deliberately limited by a Church wanting to preserve its authority (and burial fees), an inevitable consequence was that people had to transport their dead, sometimes over long distances, for interment. A great deal of superstition and “fake news” grew up around some of these routes, for example – as I shall be blogging shortly – the belief that any route taken by a bier party over private land automatically became a public right of way. They seem to have had a particular significance in rural communities in the North West of England, especially Cumbria.
The idea of the corpse road is certainly an old one. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck soliloquizes: Now it is the time of night/That the graves all gaping wide/Every one lets forth its sprite/In the church-way paths to glide.
In my view, corpse roads – although undoubtedly a magnet for the eccentric and the off-the-wall – are a testimony to the imaginative power of physical progress through the landscape at crux points in life (and death), and of the kinds of imperatives which drove connections through those landscapes. As Ingold might say, they are very particular form of “task-scape”. I am interested in why they became important enough, at least to some people, for Shakespeare to write about them.
Here is a *very* early and initial dump of start and finish points of corpse roads that I’ve been able to identify, mostly in secondary literature. I hope to be able to rectify/georeference each entry more thoroughly as and where time allows.